The Six Degrees of Separation and Kevin Bacon

December 31, 2022

Kevin Bacon in attendance for VULTURE Festival - SUN, Milk Studios, New York, NY May 21, 2017.

Six degrees of separation is the theory that any person can be connected to any other person through other people, with there being no more than five intermediaries between the two people. But the prolific actor Kevin Bacon somehow became forever connected with this theory, and here’s how it happened.

Six degrees of separation was first proposed by a Hungarian writer named Frigyes Karinthy in 1929 in a short story he wrote called Chains. In the story, a group plays a game trying to connect any person in the world to themselves by a link of only five others.

The theory was attempted to be proven mathematically in the 1950s by a research mathematician at IBM name Manfred Kochen and a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology named Ithiel de Sola Pool. Though they were able to pose it in mathematical terms as a probability that people could be linked with high probability by at most two intermediaries, they were never able to solve the problem entirely.

Stanley Milgram, an American sociologist, tested the theory in 1967 by randomly selecting people in Kansas and Nebraska and had them send letters to a complete stranger in Boston. The senders were instructed to send the letters to a friend that might know the stranger by only knowing their name, occupation, and general location. The results were interesting, as the letters only needed six intermediaries or links to get to the stranger. His small-world project was published in Psychology Today and inspired the term “six degrees of separation.”

Milgram’s small-world experiment was recreated in 2001 by Columbia University professor Duncan Watts by using an email message as the letter. After using a much larger sample size of 48,000 senders and 19 targets in 157 countries, he discovered that the number of intermediaries needed was still six. Other experiments validated these findings, which Microsoft did in 2008 and Facebook in 2016. The research by Facebook was able to reduce the links to three.

The theory of six degrees of separation gained cultural popularity when it was connected with actor Kevin Bacon. In 1994, three college students at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania, named Craig Fass, Mike Ginelli, and Brian Turtle came up with a new game when they were snowed in and watching television.

According to an interview with NPR, they watched the movie Footloose and then the movie Quicksilver came on after that. Both movies starred Kevin Bacon. Between the movies, they noticed there was a commercial for another Kevin Bacon movie. They then assumed that Kevin Bacon seemed to be in everything and tried to connect another actor with him.

They started with actor Robert De Niro and if he had ever worked with Kevin Bacon. This was prior to the movie Sleepers, which had both actors working together. They traced De Niro to The Untouchables with Kevin Costner, and Kevin Costner was in JFK with Kevin Bacon. The game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon was born, where an actor was named, and a player would try to connect that actor with Kevin Bacon in six degrees or less. The game took off on campus and eventually spread after the group appeared on The Jon Stewart Show and The Howard Stern Show to explain how it worked.

A computer game was developed at the University of Virginia by Brett C. Tjaden in 1996, where he used the Internet Movie Database to connect different actors to Kevin Bacon. The website was called the Oracle of Bacon and was named one of the ten best websites of 1996 by Time magazine. It still runs today. And Google even introduced a search called the “Bacon number” in 2012 that lets searchers find a number for connections to Kevin Bacon.

What did Kevin Bacon think about the game? Initially, he hated it and thought it was mocking his career by connecting him to actors he considered more revered. While at the South by Southwest Conference in 2014, he stated that he didn’t understand what was going on with the game at first and thought he was being laughed at. But Bacon soon embraced the game and even used the concept in 2007 for his own website called SixDegrees.org, which connects people with charity fundraising.

Bacon has had a long and accomplished career, being in many extremely popular movies with large casts, and getting a degree result beyond three proves difficult. Most connections can be made in two with Bacon.

The original inventors wrote a book called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon along with a board game and an introduction written by Bacon that was released in 1996. But they went on to other things beyond Kevin Bacon. Ginelli worked as an investment banker, Turtle worked in marketing with the company that initially released the game, and Fass became a chef.

Sources: Tech Target, Harvard Business Review, New Zealand Herald, NPR

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Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites (you can find out how to join below). I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

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